As we head into the 2012 election season, and I see all sorts of familiar right-wing rhetoric reappear from the 2008 season, I’m reminded of a powderkeg of an issue lit by the McCain campaign, or the Obama campaign, depending on who you talk to. Obama claimed that the Republicans would try to scare voters by reminding them that he’s “different” – an allusion to his name, age, background and race (“doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills”), which is, of course, exactly what they did (birthing the Birther movement, actually).
But was Obama’s warning “playing the race card”? The McCain campaign certainly thought so. Rick Davis, the McCain campaign manager, responded quickly, with, “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.”
But was Obama playing the race card? What exactly is “the race card?”
The way it’s commonly understood, playing the race card means accusing someone of being a racist in order to score political advantage or deflect criticism. Its practice has been levied towards Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton most frequently, although because of their history in politics and ready interest in speaking on behalf of the entire black “community” (of approximately 40 million Americans), this is not surprising. It had not been used to describe Barack Obama, who has studiously avoided mentioning racism, beyond his deep, balanced treatise on America’s complex history with race, after the Reverend Wright controversy.
It’s difficult, unless you’re hypersensitive to it, to see “my opponents will play up how I’m different from the classic US presidential profile in many different ways” as meaning “if you don’t vote for me, that means you’re racist.”
But the hypersensitive might exactly be the group that the McCain campaign would like to exploit. What the McCain campaign, which has been much more heavily reliant on negative campaigning against his opponent than Obama’s, has been quick to play as an opportunity for itself is the “race-card card,” or tapping into white resentment against perceived use of the race card by African-Americans.
Resentment against Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton reached a fever pitch during the Don Imus controversy, when Imus called the Rutgers women’s basketball team players “nappy headed hos“. Right-wing bloggers and commentators at right-wing sites like The Free Republic and Michelle Malkin’s Hot Air fumed with indignation. (For a different reason, some black commentators also wondered both why Jackson and Sharpton felt the need to inject themselves in the debate, and why right-wing pundits were obsessed with their reaction.)
But did Obama’s original comment have any merit? Has he been an target, or did he raise the spectre of racism to a naive electorate? Let’s look at the attempts to highlight (or even fabricate) Obama’s “differentness”:
- conservative online magazine Insight publishes story alleging that Obama attended a Muslim religious school, a madrassa (not true)
- Larry Johnson alleges that he has a video showing Michelle Obama calling white people “whitey” (not true)
- many right wingers feel the need to highlight the fact that Obama’s middle name is Hussein (which is true, but would most certainly never be mentioned if it were John, or Sidney, for example)
- Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is constantly called a racist (which is not true; referring to the disgrace of the US’s racist past does not make you a racist)
While these sorts of rumors were not directly attributable to the McCain campaign, they were popular memes circulated in right-wing circles, and almost certainly helped McCain’s candidacy among a type of voter primed to believe these sorts of things. And the campaign was quick to invoke the race-card card, while it largely remains passive when stories that can be easily proven to be untrue were circulated.
Publius at Obsidian Wings had this to say:
But the bigger problem here is that the Race Card Chorus plays on white resentment — which remains a poisonous brew. I’m a child of the rural South. But you know what? Actual racism is a lot less common there — we have a ways to go, but there has been real progress on that front. The more serious problem is white resentment. A lot of white people honestly think they have been significantly deprived of various things because of minorities. And it’s hard to overstate how deeply these feelings run. It’s not so much animosity toward people who are different — it’s the animosity of the aggrieved. They feel like they are the victims. That’s why race is a losing issue for Obama — it’s not so much that people are racist, but that they feel they are being punished because they’re white (yes, I know how completely absurd this must sound to the black community). And so this whole “race card” business feeds these flames (quite consciously, I think).
The race-card card might be more effective than the race card itself.
Oh, and since Rick Santorum has proven himself to be a douche yet again with his disrespectful answer to a gay servicemember’s question at a debate a couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d add that link there.